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Passive Voice

Everyone drinks water.
Water is drunk by everyone.

"Voice" is a grammatical category that applies to verbs. Voice in English expresses the relationship of the subject to the action. Voice has two values:

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.      
    Hamlet was written by Shakespeare.

The active voice is the "normal" voice - the one that we use most of the time. In the active voice, the object receives the action of the verb:

active subject verb object
Cats eat mice.

The passive voice is less common. In the passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb:

passive subject verb object
Mice are eaten by cats.

See how the object of the active verb becomes the subject of the passive verb:

  subject verb object
active Everybody drinks water.
passive Water is drunk by everybody.

Active Voice

Cats eat mice.

The active voice is the "normal" voice of an English sentence. Intransitive verbs (verbs with no direct object) are always in the active voice. Transitive verbs are usually in the active voice:

subject verb  
Johnny laughed.  
Anton got up late.
People drink water.

In the active voice, the subject is the person or thing responsible for the action of the verb.

All tenses are possible in the active voice, as well as all sentence types, positive, negative or question.

Use of active

The active voice is the "default" voice in English. All intransitive verbs can only be in the active voice, and all transitive verbs usually are active voice - unless we deliberately make them passive.

In spoken English, we almost always use active voice. It is the natural choice, more precise and generally shorter.

In written English, active voice is usually easier and more interesting for the reader. Passive voice can sound dull and bureaucratic, and is typical of official writing. In the interests of "plain English" that the average person can understand, many governments now encourage civil servants to write in the active voice.

The active voice is:

Except on occasions when the passive voice is actually useful, the active voice is the voice of choice.

Passive Voice

Mice are eaten by cats.

Although the passive voice is less common than the active voice, there are several good reasons to sometimes use the passive. On this page we look at how to construct the passive voice and when and why to use it.

How do we make the passive?

The basic structure of a passive clause is very simple:

subject + auxiliary verb
+ main verb
past participle
+ by + agent

The auxiliary be is conjugated in all tenses. The main verb is always the past participle. The agent is the original "doer" of the action.

Look at some examples:

subject auxiliary verb be main verb
past participle
I am employed by Apple.
You will be woken   at 6.
It will have been finished   by then.
We have been notified by Head Office.
You are being transferred   next week.
They will be paid.    

Notice above↑:

Agentless passive

The subject of an active sentence "does" the action. In a passive sentence, we express the doer (or agent) through a by phrase (the long passive) or, very often, we remove it completely (the short passive). In the following example, the agent is "the Allies":

active The Allies firebombed Dresden.
passive long Dresden was firebombed by the Allies.
short Dresden was firebombed.

The short passive is also known as the "agentless passive". Soon you will see how useful it can be.

Negatives and questions

The table below shows examples of the passive with negative sentences, question sentences and negative-question sentences:

    subject     auxiliary verb
  main verb
past participle
-   You     are not paid to watch YouTube.
  They will never be   employed by us.
? Are they         cleaned regularly?
Has your wallet     been   stolen?  
-? Is he       not notified immediately?
Will they   not be   dismissed?  
Haven't they     been   forgotten?  

Notice above↑:

Use of the passive

When and why do we use passive voice?

There are several times when the passive voice is useful, and usually the decision has to do with the "doer" (agent) or the "receiver" of the action. For example, we use the passive when:

1. we want to emphasize the receiver of the action:

2. we don't know who did the action (the agent):

3. we think the agent is not important or interesting:

4. the agent is obvious:

5. we are making general statements or announcements:

6. the agent is everyone:

7. we are writing formal or scientific texts:

8. we want to avoid responsibility for our own actions (typically found in government reports):

Look at this sentence:
  • He was killed with a gun.
Normally we use by to introduce the agent. But the gun is not the original doer of the action. The gun did not kill him. He was killed by somebody with a gun. In the active voice, it would be: Somebody killed him with a gun. Somebody is the agent. The gun is the instrument.

The get-passive

Although we normally construct the passive with be + past participle, it is also possible (in informal language) to use get + past participle. So if France beat England at football, we could turn this to passive and say "England were beaten by France" (be-passive) or "England got beaten by France" (get-passive). And we might also add: "But France will get thrashed by Russia."

For formal English and exams you should use the be-passive, but in informal language people sometimes use the get-passive.

Forms of passive

The passive voice is not a tense itself. But for transitive verbs each tense, as well as other verb forms such as infinitives and participles, can be produced in the passive voice. Some of the more complicated tenses (mostly perfect continuous) are rarely used in the passive, but they are possible.

Here are some examples of the passive voice with many of the possible forms using the verb sing:

infinitive to be sung
perfect infinitive to have been sung
participle sung
perfect participle having been sung
gerund being sung
  Simple Continuous Perfect
Present am, are, is sung am, are, is being sung have, has been sung
Past was, were sung was, were being sung had been sung
Future will be sung will be being sung will have been sung

Active and Passive Examples

The table below shows example sentences in active and passive voice for the basic tenses as well as various other verb forms, including infinitives and participles.

  active passive
Present Simple How does one pronounce his name? How is his name pronounced?
Present Continuous Ati's helping Tara. Tara's being helped by Ati.
Present Perfect Kid has served dinner. Dinner has been served.
Present Perfect Continuous The police have been watching that house for weeks. That house has been being watched for weeks.
Past Simple They didn't fix my phone yesterday. My phone wasn't fixed yesterday.
Past Continuous They were interrogating him when I called. He was being interrogated when I called.
Past Perfect I wondered why they hadn't invited me. I wondered why I hadn't been invited.
Past Perfect Continuous She wasn't sure how long they'd been following her. She wasn't sure how long she'd been being followed.*
Future Simple They will hang him at dawn. He will be hanged at dawn.
Future Continuous They won't be questioning him when you get there. He won't be being questioned when you get there.
Future Perfect They will have repaired your car by 7pm. Your car will have been repaired by 7pm.
Future Perfect Continuous They'll have been treating her for exactly three months tomorrow. She'll have been being treated for exactly three months tomorrow.*
infinitive I don't want anyone to disturb me. I don't want to be disturbed.
perfect infitive They seem to have taken it. It seems to have been taken.
participle I saw the cat eating it. I saw it being eaten by the cat.
perfect participle Having finished my work, I went home. My work having been finished, I went home.
gerund I insisted on them paying me. I insisted on being paid.
going to Is he going to sing Thriller at the party? Is Thriller going to be sung at the party?
used to Ram used to take care of everything. Everything used to be taken care of by Ram.
can They can question him for six hours. He can be questioned for six hours.
could It could have badly hurt you. You could have been badly hurt.
may The papers say they may release him. The papers say he may be released.
might Somebody might buy it. It might be bought.
must Passengers must wear seat belts. Seat belts must be worn.
should You should have told me. I should have been told.
ought to They ought to forgive him. He ought to be forgiven.

*possible but rather awkward and therefore rare